‘Grandma’ finds purpose in reaching out to those in need

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published March 24, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated March 22, 2013 at 12:40 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Curt Youngblood

Lorraine Duce has spent nearly 32 years of her life carring for children and adults through her volunteer work with the Arkadelphia Human Development Center. Duce has worked with the center since 1981 and is believed to be Arkansas’ oldest foster grandparent and one of the state’s longest-serving volunteers.

Lorraine Duce of Amity is at heart a force — an apparently unstoppable juggernaut of compassion, care, love and humor who has been helping children and adults in need for almost 32 years.

Duce is thought to be the oldest foster grandparent in the state, as well as one of Arkansas’ longest-serving volunteers. She has worked with youngsters at the Arkadelphia Human Development Center since 1981, when she was only 64.

“She’s grandma to everybody here,” said Aaron Nelson, staff development specialist at the center. “She is always bringing in birthday cakes and banana bread and keeping everyone in snacks. But if we have a person here who is isolated, she will turn on her Grandma love and get them talking, and they will start getting to know people. She breaks through that shell of isolation.”

Nelson said foster grandparents are volunteers, 60 and older, who have child care experience and are then trained for working at the state-operated center for the mentally disabled.

While she helps others at the center, Duce credits her work there for saving her life because she was living with her own isolation and loneliness after losing her husband and her mother within a short period of time.

“I sat at home by myself, never going out, but two good friends worked out here and wanted me to come with them,” Duce said. “It was better than sitting at home doing nothing.”

After filling out an application, she was hired by Arkadelphia Human Development Center Director Estelle Ford on the spot, Duce said.

“They gave me a little boy, and I cared for him until he went to school in Con-way,” she said. “Then they gave me three girls.”

Duce said she was unsure of how many children have been in her charge in the years she has been at the center, but she has been working with one person since he was 9. The man is now in his 30s.

“He was just a child when I first saw him, and I am with him every day,” Duce said. “He is blind, and I help him work sealing envelopes that contain maps and travel information for the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.”

Almost everyone who can work is

given a job at the center. Many stuff the

envelopes that are sent to people from around the world who have requested traveling information on Arkansas. Others make arts and crafts that are sold to raise funds for the center. Other jobs include operating a recycling center for paper and cardboard.

“I don’t want to stay home. I need someone to talk to and be with,” Duce said. “This gives me a reason to get up, get dressed and drive over here.”

Nelson said Duce has always been very dedicated to her work with the children.

“She broke her foot and had a cast on it and used a walker,” he said. “Then they found her knee was injured, and she had surgery. She never stopped coming in.”

“I like the people who live out here. It’s important to be with people who need your help,” Duce said. “There are sure plenty of people in the world that need help, so I’m doing what I can.”

Duce, 95, was born three days after America entered World War I. Her parents were from Arkansas, but she was born in Minnesota. Her parents had moved there to homestead timberland.

The family returned to Arkansas when she was about 12 years old. It was her first great adventure.

“My father drove an old Dodge car with a rumble seat,” Duce said. “There were nine children and two adults. I don’t know how we all fit in, but I thought it was great to ride in a car. Daddy had had an old truck.”

She went to high school in Plainview, then moved to Amity when she married Dean Slaughter when she was 21.

Along with raising her three children, Duce, then Mrs. Slaughter, worked as a seamstress for a jeans manufacturer in Arkadelphia.

“I sewed the side seem of the pants and restitched the pockets,” she said.

Duce retired from the jeans factory after doctors discovered she had a brain tumor.

“They removed it, but then my face had nerve damage from the surgery, and I could not move one side of my face,” she said. “They took some nerves from my tongue and fixed my face.”

Her husband, Dean, died in 1945 when he was only 44. She married Wilbur Duce in 1958.

After her second husband died, she moved to Indiana to stay with her mother during her last days. After her mother died, Duce returned to her house in Amity until her two friends persuaded her to come to the development center.

The great-grandmother said the

children she worked with, others who lived there and the staff became a second family for Duce.

Asked about retiring from the center, she said that would come only when she lays down.

“And I mean on my back with my feet pointed up, and they put me 6 feet under,” Duce said, laughing at the idea. “I’ll never retire.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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